The Young Cleaner

Location : Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

What was your first ever job, or was this job at Beech House your first one?

That was the first job – at Beech House.

And can you describe how you got that job?

I think I just biked round there one day from Longham, and went up there and said "Have you got any jobs?" I think that's how it was, and they said "Yes, we could do with a weekend cleaner". So I took on, like the weekends, and another girl, L, we did like weekends, and I think that's how I got the job.

How old were you?

Fourteen

So you were still at school during the week?

In the week, yeah. I just wanted some pocket money cos I'd recently got a new bicycle and I wanted to pay for it, and that was so much a week. I think a bicycle altogether was about £5, but I wanted to pay for it, so I wanted to have the money each week to put a little towards it.

And can you remember, is that how you were paid? Each week you were given an envelope with money in it?

Yes, with cash in it.

And you said a short while ago that you couldn't remember exactly how much it was that you were paid . ..

No, not quite sure. That's so long ago . ..

Can you remember how old you were, what year it was you first started working there?

That must have been 1965. I would have been 14 in 1965, and, like I say, I used to bike from Longham to Gressenhall, all weathers.

Up the big hill you said.

Yes, the massive big hill, Dunfer Hill that's called and that's a huge big hill. Anyone who know Gressenhall and Longham will know Dunfer Hill is a huge big hill.

So is it going up on the way to work?

Yes, on the way to work, so, you know, I'd got to get to the top of this huge, big hill, and then that's sort of nicely coming down into Gressenhall, and then going through Gressenhall you've got the long slow incline again up to Beech House. So that was quite a work out, that was. But at that age you really didn't think much of it.

Can you remember your hours? Was it all day Saturday and all day Sunday?

I don't think that was all day. I think that was something like from 9 till about 1, I think. I don't believe that was all day.

That's pretty hard working.

Yeah, that was hard work. Yeah, yeah.

That was when it was Beech House?

Beech House, yes.

And how long then had it been an Old People's Home?

From when I was a child I can always remember it as Beech House, but mum and dad said that used to be a workhouse before then, but I probably weren't born. I'm not sure. That was a long way back, but when me and L used to go upstairs into the top of the buildin' they'd still got all the old iron bedsteads what were from the workhouse, still got them up there.

Were they in storage or being used?

In storage. All the rusty old iron bedsteads with the spring mattresses and all that. All up in the top part, but they also said there was a ghost up there, so we didn't hang about up there too long!

Other people I've interviewed, as I told you, said similar things, that the nurses wouldn't go upstairs alone in certain parts of the building.

Well, when you think, when that was a workhouse there must have been a lot of people died there, so you know, you don't have a lot of people die and you don't get something afterwards.

Several people that I've spoken to said that Beech House, sadly, had a bit of a reputation because of the fact that it had been a workhouse in the past, you know, although it was just an Old People's Home, that a lot of the people who were residents who came from all different parts of the county, it wasn't just local people, and that sometimes people didn't want to work there because it had been a workhouse.

Sort of a stigma around it. Mmm, I don't think that bothered me at the start, but when I experienced death, and I saw people dyin' there, and seeing them carried down the stairs on a stretcher, I think that bothered me quite a bit.

You were young

I was only 14, and when I used to go home and tell mum she'd say "Well maybe that's not going to be the job for you". Hence why I weren't there long.

What was your job title when you were there?

Just "cleaner".

And were you interviewed for that job or did they just say "We need help". I suppose it's so long ago it's hard to remember.

I can't remember whether I was interviewed. Mmm, I believe I actually just went in there and this lady come over to me, I can't even remember her name, and she said "Right, you'll be workin' with L".

What was her last name, can you remember?

Well, Mrs M, she comes to mind, because where L lived, in the little lodges, at the start, at the beginning when you go into the actual Beech House, there was a lodge each side. She lived in one and I'm sure Mrs M lived in the other one.

So L, what was she? Was she housekeeper?

She was cleaner, like I was, and I got a feelin' that was Mrs M who came to me and said that, you know, what to do, and L'll show you the ropes.

She was Matron at the time?

Yes.

So what did you actually do? Can you remember what your job was every weekend when you went on a Saturday morning or Sunday morning? What did you do?

I used to sweep round in the actual wards, sweep round the beds, sometimes wash the floors. I used to then go down a long corridor and I could be cleanin' in the dinin' room, sweepin' and washin' there before anybody got in there for lunch. We used to sweep all the long corridors and, you know, just mainly cleanin'.

Did you have a vacuum cleaner then or was it all just by hand?

I don't think there was a vacuum cleaner. I think a lot of it was by hand. There must have been a vacuum cleaner, though, if there was carpets, there must have been. But then I think way back then, very limited for carpets cos a lot of the floors were like the old red tile brick sort of thing, so maybe there weren't a lot . . . I just can't remember. Because I was so young.

Was it hard work? Can you remember it being hard or back-breaking?

Yeah, that was quite hard work, because we had to do quite a lot in the time we were there. But there was one place we didn't like goin'. That was over in the chapel.

Why was that?

Because that was creepy and they used to have, you know, the little funerals and that in there, and we always had to go there together. We couldn't go on our own. We used to sweep and clean and sort of polish whatever brass and bits and pieces, but we didn't like goin' in there on our own, so we tried to do things together.

It's still quite cold and dark. I don't know if you've been there recently and had a look around?

I went last year when that was the Over-55's Day and had a look. But actually I didn't go in there, so that might have triggered something off for me, so I didn't go in that part. But I went all round the Museum and up the stairs and everywhere.

Did you go, when you were working there, into the area where the laundry is? Can you remember at all where that building is?

No. Of course when that came to, like changin' beds and things like that, the nurses did all that, so I wouldn't have had that part. I've got a feelin' I can remember the porters comin' and takin' the sheets away in one of those big things what they used to fill 'em up and push ‘em down.

Were they baskets on wheels?

That was more like a cloth thing I think. Sort of like an old sack thing where they put the sheets and that in and then take them off. And I think that was the porters, because I remember one man there, B W, he was a porter, and I can vaguely remember him doin' something like that. And he also used to help with another man to carry anybody who'd died down the stairs and out.

And was that done during the day?

Yeah, it could be done any time, any time of the day, ‘cos one day I was cleanin' in one of the upstairs wards, and one minute I was talking to this little lady and the next minute I was sweepin' under her bed and her hand dropped, and I thought "Oooh, I hope she's all right". So I ran and got somebody, and she'd passed away there and then. That thing had a lastin' memory for me. I can remember that quite clearly ‘cos I could see the hand droppin'. And I could see … she was a big woman … I could see them carrying her down the stairs, and at one time they got sort of half way down. ‘Cos there were quite a lot of stairs. And we were watchin' over the top rail, and B, Mr W, sort of slipped a bit, and the body actually rolled and we thought "Oh my goodness, that's goin' off". And he quickly got his footin' again and levelled her off. ‘Cos we thought they're going to tip her off and down the stairs, but, like I say, he just sort of recovered her.

So when you were working in the wards did you often chat to the people who were staying there, that were residents?

Yeah, I used to chat to some of ‘em. I think there was one though, one little man, he sort of frightened me a bit because he had a tendency to strip off naked and he'd run up and down. I'm not sure whether his name was Little F. I think he was like a little dwarf man.

Everyone has mentioned F who I've spoken to.

Yeah, Little F. I think that was him, he used to strip off, and I wouldn't go in there if I thought .. . but sometimes he'd go flashin' past with no clothes on.

Were the women and the men separated by wards or were they mixed wards? Can you remember?

I think they were mixed. I might be wrong, because there were women upstairs . . . . No, they probably weren't mixed, no they weren't, because Little F was right on the bottom floor, and I think that was all men there and the other wards were women. I think they were separated.

Did you ever go out socially on day trips?

No

Did anybody supervise you? Was anybody in charge of you, making sure that you did what you were supposed to do? Or were you more generally, you had a job and you went in and did it?

I think we just generally got on and did it, but probably somebody like Mrs M, if that weren't done she'd come and say "Why haven't this been done?" But other than that she just pointed out what we'd got to do, and , like I say, L, we worked together and we knew what we'd got to do and we just got on and done it.

Were they quite strict standards of cleanliness, so to speak?

I think they were up to a point, because I think they seemed to be cleaner than what they are today actually, because I remember a lot of moppin' floors, but on one hand they were clean that way, but then one of the cooks used to have a cigarette on with a long ash, and she'd drop that into whatever she was cookin' and carry on stirrin'. And nobody ever noticed . . . well, they did notice, but they didn't say nothin' because they could smoke then … or this one did!

So did you go into the kitchens then? Is that where you had lunch or tea breaks?

We used to go upstairs in that creepy part – we used have a break up there, and I think that was only about ten minutes, it weren't long, but then I weren't there many hours, so I weren't entitled to too long.

Where were you living while you were working there?

At Longham, at home with mum and dad, brothers and sisters.

And what clothes did you have to wear to work? Did you have a uniform or were you just allowed to wear your own clothes?

I don't believe I had a uniform. I just think we had whatever we put on. But I remember someone saying trousers would be more appropriate, so I always had jeans or something like that on.

What hours, again, did you work?

I believe that was 9 till 1.

On Saturday and Sunday?

Yes.

How much were you paid approximately? The bike was £5, and did you pay it off?

Yes, I did pay it off, yes, yeah. That was mine within a few weeks, so …. I'm not sure if that was half a crown for the two days, I'm not quite sure. But I know we got paid in a wage packet, you know, cash, and I was really pleased to take that home and show mum. And I actually with some of that money, the first wage, I went and bought mum a little watch. Just one of the little cheapy watches, but then I suppose then they were within the range of what you was earnin', weren't they? But, yes, I remember my first wage packet I got her a little watch.

And did you save your money to go out socialising?

No. I think I went out hardly at all, because when I was 15 I met my first husband-to-be and that was when I was working at Metamex. I met him one day and he was in the Navy. He was home on leave and I knew him from school. I'd seen him at school and he said to me he used to come and sit outside and watch us all file out of Metamex and sometimes he'd have a chat and that and he just asked me out one day and sort of went from there. But that seem such a long while ago now.

And you were working presumably?

Yes, I was working. Then I was at Metamex. I worked at Metamex then for three years.

And that was the job you had after you left Beech House?

Yes, when I left Beech House I then went on to Metamex, and then I used to bike from Longham to Dereham. My sister used to bike with me.

Everyone presumably had bicycles and that's how they got around.

Yeah, yeah.

Did you ever think .. . well, I suppose you only worked part time, but I've interviewed some people who lived at Beech House, had rooms while they were working there because they lived too far away.

Well, L she lived in one of the little flatlets, you know. I didn't stay with her, but I used to go round hers.

How long did you work there for? I was going to ask you how did your responsibilities change over the time that you worked there? Or did they stay the same? Did you do the same job?

Yes, did the same job. I weren't there long, probably six months at the most because when I was experiencin' these people dyin' and that. I mean I was only 14 and I think that got to me a bit, and I would go home and I'd tell mum, and mum'd say "Well maybe that's not the job for you. You know, you're too young to be workin' around that sort of thing". And that is the main reason I left.

And were you glad to leave?

I was glad to leave, but not to lose the money, ‘cos the money was the main thing what I went for, but there was quite a few of the old people, you know, you get attached to them, and when something happened to them, of course, you know that's not very nice. I remember one little lady. We was in the dinin' room and we could hear someone shoutin', and the little lady had locked herself in the toilet and she was smearin' whatever she'd done all up the walls. And then they looked over the top and she'd started to eat it as well, so I think B, Mr W, he had to come through and he had to undo the door somehow to get her out. But they did peculiar things some of ‘em. But I remember her doin' that. Some of them they had to keep a real eye on. But there weren't really that much that I saw because I wasn't there long enough, was I? But I can remember that ward. There was a ward where there's somebody walkin' up and down, and the nurses wouldn't go in there, only if they was two at a time at night.

So this was the ghost? Which ward was that on? Can you remember?

That was on the bottom floor and actually now that's just part of that . ..archaeological .. ., because I said to my sister, she was a cleaner there, where she was workin' in that part, where they put a toilet in there as well, a public toilet, and part of the tractors and the old work pieces, that was there, the ward was there, but since I worked there, when I went back, that's all been knocked about, and that's all changed. But that was where this lady would walk up and down at night.

And do you know anything about her?

No. They just said that there's a lady walkin' up and down, you know. I should say she was from like the workhouse time, because when you think all the people what died then there's got to be something . .. I mean .. .

So much pain and misery.

That's right, yeah.

Can you remember any particular noises or smells or anything, when you think back to when you used to work there? What kind of things can you really remember about the buildings or the people?

I can remember the smell of wee in some of the wards. I can remember that. That sort of hit you when you walked in, even though they were cleaned, and we cleaned, you could still smell that. And there was sort like a musty smell, I can remember that. They were clean but I suppose that's like . .. I used to work in a Nursing Home a few years back and as soon as you go in there, however much you clean, you can smell wee. You can smell it ‘cos that get in the mattresses and everything, and, you know, if you don't take the mattress out and buy a new one there's always there, that smell, whatever you do, you can still smell it, you can't cover it up. So that was a smell like that.

Any noises, or sounds?

Yeah, when we was up in the top part where they say there was a ghost up there. We used to have our break up there sometimes, me and Lorraine, and they'd got all the old iron bedsteads stored away up there what used to be for the workhouse. And we was up there one day and the door opened and closed, and we were absolutely petrified, and we didn't know whether to freeze on the spot, whether to go over to the door and dare open it to see whether something was the other side.

Was that the door into where all these things were stored?

Yes, ‘cos we were actually in there and there was nobody there, because when we got the courage to go through there was nobody the other side . .. . .. so there was somethin'.

For a 14 year old girl that sounds awful!

That's right, that was a bit scary.

It was perhaps a bit different because you worked at weekends, but how much time did you get off work? Obviously you had a break in the morning, but did you get a lunch break or did you go home?

No, I didn't. Just got the break because I think I was only doing so many hours, so I didn't actually have a lunch break. I think that was only about 10 minutes.

And on occasions like Christmas and birthdays and Easter did the Nursing Home celebrate them? Were you involved in any parties or any celebrations for different kinds of occasions like that, that you can remember?

I can remember birthdays. They would make a cake for one of the residents. They would do that. But we weren't really involved in it, but you'd see them take the cake through into the dinin' room and they'd go through there. But I don't think I was there roundabout Christmas time.

So can you remember which month you started then?

I think that was probably early spring because I remember seeing little lambs. There was lambs in the fields when I used to bike along, and the weather wasn't too bad, so I should say that was early spring, and I probably left, perhaps August or something like that. So I sort of biked through some nice weather as well.

Was it a friendly place to work? Did you make friends there besides L who obviously you worked closely with?

Not really. The nurses kept themselves to themselves. Perhaps we felt like a little bit underneath them because they were nurses and we were the cleaners, so probably we felt a little bit underneath. That's the impression we got.

Did it make you want to do nursing?

No, no, no. As much as I liked a lot of the old people, I'd be one of those people who would get so attached, and I'd get so upset and involved if anything happened, because with a good nurse, when they're lookin' after somebody they can set aside those feelin's and they can experience all that and then carry on. Well I don't think I'd be that sort of person. I think I'd get emotionally involved. That's what'd happen. So that there was no way I would have been a nurse. No. You've got to be the right sort of person for that.

Can you remember any of the names of the people you worked with?

And I can remember Mrs T was the cook, one of the cooks, because she lived two doors away from where I lived.

What kind of food did she cook, can you remember?

I can remember seeing a big pan of like a soup or a broth. I can remember her cookin' that. ‘Cos of course we weren't allowed in the kitchen that often, but I had to go round to have a look to see who was there and what they were doin'. I think they were pretty basic meals, you know. To whatever amount of money she had they would just prepare like the basic. I remember mashed potatoes, we had mashed potatoes. I think she did like a second course for ‘em.

But I can also remember a porter, Mr W, B W. I remember him. And his son was J W, who married L. I think that was him, yeah. Because they were goin' out together when I worked there.

So was L older than you then?

Yes, she was a bit older than me. I was 14 and I think she was about 17 / 18, somethin' like that.

Do you still see any of the people that you met back then?

No, I haven't come in contact with anybody from then. I used to see V when I'd finished there, because my sister, M, used to go and stay with her.

At Beech House?

No, she used to stay with V round her house, because we were a big family, we'd only got three bedrooms and at one time our grandmother was living there as well. So when we got overcrowded M went to stay with V at night time and then she'd come back during the day.

V was pleased of the company because she was on her own quite a lot and she was very pleased with the company. We were quite friendly with her because she used to walk down to ours or we'd go round and see her.

Did she bike to work as well?

No, I think she must have stayed there, because she wouldn't have biked.

Were there buses back then?

Yeah, they were just the little old-fashioned buses and they'd only hold so many. No seat belts, because I remember when we went to school one day we all piled in this little bus and there was a cattle float coming the other way. That was a bit slippery that particular day, and our bus hit the cattle float, and all the pigs got out and they were all runnin' across the road everywhere, and some of us had to get taken to the doctors. My sister had both her two front teeth knocked completely out. That was quite a severe accident I suppose in that time. Another boy, he had a gash right across his head.

When was that?

I think probably when I was 13 or 14, so that'll have been like '63 / '64.

Sounds like a bad accident

That was quite a bad one, yeah, and we all got taken to the nearest farmhouse to start off with, and then they asked who was badly hurt, you know, to see if anybody was bleedin'. Like I say my sister got both her front teeth knocked out because she went flyin' because the impact of the bus hittin' the cattle float. She went flyin' ‘cos she was at the back.

It sounds like it could have been much worse.

That could have been, yeah, yeah. I think that was one of the worst injuries, was hers.

And did she just get replacement .. . .?

Yeah. Just got false teeth.

How many other cleaners were working at Beech House when you were there? Can you remember how big the staff was?

No. The only one I can remember is L. You see that was weekends, so probably there was people there durin' the week who I didn't see. I mean that's quite a big place, weren't it? And that was all bein' used, so there was quite a lot to clean.

And where were your brushes and mops and everything kept? Was there like a little room where you went to get all your things? The soap for instance.

I think there was, there was a little cupboard. I can vaguely remember that. No, there must have been a cupboard we used to get all the stuff from, but I can't bring that to mind. Like I say with the laundry. I can't even remember where the laundry was.

I suppose though if you had nothing to do with that part of the . ..

No. Was that outside the building? Was that anywhere near the chapel?

No. It's on the other side. So if you're in the courtyard looking at the building in front of you, the laundry is over there and the chapel's here. The chapel's on your left, so it's on the right hand side behind. It looks like a kind of open shed and it was a long building. There was the laundry and then an ironing room next to it.

That must have been then over the back of what used to be the dining room. There used to be the dining room, and I think that's archaeological . . It must be in the back of it.

I can show you. This is from the 1930s. This is a diagram of Gressenhall in the 1930s. Here's the courtyard here and the chapel and . . . I don't know if this was the same in the ‘60s when you were . . . here's the dining room and here's two different yards, the Juvenile and the Infirm Men's Yard, and up here is where the laundry is. So it's where the Women's Yard . . . Today it's just an open shed where they just have equipment underneath. And they used to string up the laundry here.

Well, as I remember it, here there was the two little lodges where L stayed and Mrs M.

They stayed there. When I used to come in here, up that corner was the main door, and then we'd come down a corridor here . .

And here was a ward. I'm sure that was a ward there. There's some more wards over this way and V's kitchen was over here somewhere.

And here, we'd come in the door there, turn right and I'm sure here was the dinin' room. It's all been changed about hasn't it?

So where did you park your bike then?

I think I just pushed it up near the wall at the front there, up here somewhere, but then L said "Leave your bike round …" where she lived.

You can see from this diagram what a big place it is.

That was a huge, big place and that look even bigger when you're younger. You know, that seemed quite a lot and you'd think "Goodness how am I going to get round all that?" But, like I say, I didn't have anything to do with the laundry.

Sounds like you were kept very busy cleaning all the wards, dining rooms …..

And the corridors. The corridors were quite large corridors.

And what did you have to do to keep them clean? Did you sweep them and then wash them each day?

Yes, once a day over the weekend, we'd do them.

Every single corridor?

Yeah. Try and get round all the corridors. And if there was any time to spare we used to wipe the windowsills, where the doors open and shut, the ledges. I used to wipe over those. But there weren't really a lot of time to spare, not in the time that I was there.

What did you most enjoy about working there even just for the few months that you were there?

Mmm, I think I enjoyed working with L. If I'd've been on my own I wouldn't have enjoyed it at all. But with company, which she was, we sort of worked in together, you know. I enjoyed it for that reason, but I don't think I would've done if I'd been working completely on my own.

What about things you didn't like about it, besides the death and the sad . . . being surrounded by it all the time?

I can't really think of anything for that one. No, that was just, like you say, there were happy times but a lot of ‘em were sad, and there were more sad than there were happy times. I remember one lady – that was a little bit funny – one of the residents. I went in there one day, the ward, and she was trying to tell me something but she couldn't stop burpin'. She was doin' it constantly. And I stood there and I thought "This is funny". I wanted to laugh and I was tryin' not to, and the poor lady was gettin' so frustrated because she couldn't stop bringin' wind up. And in the end the nurses come in, a couple of nurses, and they gave her somethin' and settled her down, but that was an amusin' moment.

What was she trying to tell you? Get me help?

I think so, really. She couldn't get the words out ‘cos every time she opened her mouth, out came a loud burp. Well at 14 that seem funny, don't it? Yeah I remember that!

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